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IRVING may be named as the first author in the United States whose writings made a place for themselves in general literature. Franklin, indeed, had preceded him with his autobiography, but Franklin belongs rather to the colo nial period. It was under the influences of that time that his mind and taste were formed, and there was a marked difference between the Boston and Philadelphia of Franklin's youth and the New York of Irving's time. Politics, commerce, and the rise of industries were rapidly changing social relations and manners, while the country was still dependent on England for its higher literature. It had hardly begun to find materials for literature in its own past or in its aspects of nature, yet there was a very positive element in life which resented foreign interference. There were thus two currents crossing each other the common life which was narrowly American, and the cultivated taste which was English, or imitative of England. Irving's first ventures, in company with his brothers and Paulding, were in the attempt to represent New York in literature upon the model of contemporary or recent presentations of London. "The town" in the minds of these young writers was that portion of New York society which might be construed into a miniature reflection of London wit and amusement. His associates never advanced beyond this stage, but with Washington Irving the sketches which he wrote under the signa
ture of Jonathan Old Style and in the medley of Sal magundi were only the first experiments of a mind capable of larger things. After five or six years of trifling with his pen, he wrote and published, in 1809, A History of New York, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, which he began in company with his brother Peter as a mere jeu d'esprit, but turned into a more determined work of humor, as the capabilities of the subject disclosed themselves. Grave historians had paid little attention to the record of New York under the Dutch; Irving, who saw the humorous contrast between the traditional Dutch society of his day and the pushing new democracy, seized upon the early history and made it the occasion for a good-natured burlesque. He shocked the old families about him, but he amused everybody else, and the book, going to England, made his name at once known to those who had the making there of literary reputations.
Irving himself was born of a Scottish father and English mother, who had come to this country only twenty years before. He was but little removed, therefore, from the traditions of Great Britain, and his brothers and he carried on a trading business with the old country. His own tastes were not mercantile, and he was only silent partner in the house; he wrote occasionally and was for a time the editor of a magazine, but his pleasure was chiefly in travel, good literature, and good society. It was while he was in England, in 1818, that the house in which he was a partner failed, and he was thrown on his own resources. Necessity gave the slight spur which was wanting to his inclination, and he began with deliberation the career of an author. He had found himself at home in England. His family origin and his taste for the best literature had made him English in his sympathies and tastes, and his residence and travels there, the society which he entered and the friends he made, confirmed him in English habits. Nevertheless he was sturdily American in his principles; he was strongly attached to New York and
his American friends, and was always a looker-on in EngHis foreign birth and education gave him significant advantages as an observer of English life, and he at once began the writing of those papers, stories, and sketches which appeared in the separate numbers of The Sketch Book, in Bracebridge Hall, and in Tales of a Traveller. They were chiefly drawn from material accumulated abroad, but an occasional American subject was taken. Irving instinctively felt that by the circumstances of the time and the bent of his genius he could pursue his calling more safely abroad than at home. He remained in Europe seventeen years, sending home his books for publication, and securing also the profitable results of publication in London. During that time, besides the books above named, he wrote the History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus; the Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus; A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada; and The Alhambra. The Spanish material was obtained while residing in Spain, whither he went at the suggestion of the American minister to make translations of documents relating to the voyages of Columbus which had recently been collected. Irving's training and tastes led him rather into the construction of popular narrative than into the work of a scientific historian, and, with his strong American affections, he was quick to see the interest and value which lay in the history of Spain as connected with America. He was eminently a raconteur, very skilful and graceful in the shaping of old material; his humor played freely over the surface of his writing, and, with little power to create characters or plots, he had an unfailing perception of the literary capabilities of scenes and persons which came under his observation.
He came back to America in 1832 with an established reputation, and was welcomed enthusiastically by his friends and countrymen. He travelled into the new parts of America, and spent ten years at home, industriously working at the material which had accumulated in his hands when
abroad, and had been increased during his travels in the West. In this period he published Legends of the Conquest of Spain; The Crayon Miscellany, including his Tour on the Prairies, Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey; Astoria; a number of papers in the Knickerbocker Magazine, afterwards published under the title of Wolfert's Roost; and edited the Adventures of Captain Bonneville, U. S. A., in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West.
In 1842 he went back to Spain as American minister, holding the office for four years, when he returned to America, established himself at his home, Sunnyside on the banks of the Hudson, and remained there until his death in 1859. The fruits of this final period were Mahomet and his Successors, which, with a volume of posthumous publication, Spanish Papers and other Miscellanies, completed the series of Spanish and Moorish subjects which form a distinct part of his writings; Oliver Goldsmith, a Biography; and finally a Life of Washington, which occupied the closing years of his life, -years which were not free from physical suffering. In this book Irving embodied his strong admiration for the subject, whose name he bore and whose blessing he had received as a child; he employed, too, a pen which had been trained by its labors on the Spanish material, and, like that series, the work is marked by good taste, artistic sense of proportion, faithfulness, and candor, rather than by the severer work of the historian. It is a popular and a fair life of Washington and account of the war for independence.
Irving's personal and literary history is recorded in The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, by his nephew, Pierre M. Irving. His death was the occasion of many affectionate and graceful eulogies and addresses, a number of which were gathered into Irvingiana: a Memorial of Washington Irving.
Rip Van Winkle is from The Sketch Book.
Washington Irving was born in New York April 3, 1783, and died at Sunnyside on the Hudson, November 28, 1859,